The best day of my life

The global pandemic of coronavirus changed the lives of millions of people, and I am no exception. However, in this post, I will tell you about my PhD defense as, so far, the best day of my life. I was lucky to have an amazing opponent and a very experienced examination board. Despite that three out of four key participants in the defense were not present physically in the conference room, I had a great conversation with them. Therefore, I would like to share my insights on the whole process of the recent defense of my thesis via a conference call. Hopefully, it will help the graduate students in the same situation to prepare for a more relaxed and enjoyable defense.


Friday, 17th of April 2020 – so far, the best day of my life (picture from my organizer).   

Karolinska Institutet (KI) was very efficient in terms of adaptation to the current situation and switch to remote work. Therefore, the procedure for the PhD defense at KI also got changed quickly. There are two main actions, in my opinion, that you have to take before the Dissertation (D)-day these days: 

  1. get the technical part under control;
  2. rehearse the presentation and learn how to defend your thesis.

The university has a license to use a particular software – Zoom – for the public dissertations, so you should not be afraid that your discussion will stop only after 40 minutes that are available with a free version. I started getting the technical part under control by scheduling a meeting in Zoom and checking if the link worked. I also had multiple rehearsals of my presentation. For example, I had four so-called “grilling” sessions with my colleagues, when they asked me all kinds of questions about my thesis, articles, and future plans. One of the Zoom rehearsing sessions took almost four hours. It helped me to “get the feeling” of non-stop questioning such as “On page 5 you wrote this and this. What did you mean?” Honestly, even though everyone knows that it is you and only you who wrote a thesis book, you may forget what you meant in one sentence on page 5. Therefore, rehearse, ask your colleagues to “grill” you, read your thesis again two days before the defense, and stay calm. You may also show your presentation to people outside your field to be sure that the content is clear for everyone. The pieces of advice I received from my friends outside academia helped to drastically improve the flow and the structure of my presentation. 

Next, I arranged a meeting with a person from the technical staff of the conference room several days before the event. They showed me how to connect the computer; we checked the sound system, wires, light, and the possibility of sharing the screens. Think about the position (sitting, standing) and how you want to present. Check if the wires are long enough to be connected to your computer while you put it on a pedestal. Keep in mind that you will need a microphone which you may get from your department. To conclude, all these actions will help you to stay calm and confident about the technical part. I should mention that on my defense day everything worked great, except for a small issue in the beginning when the sound system of Zoom got connected to another computer. Therefore, if you do not hear the participants, you may ask people in the audience to disconnect their computers from the meeting. 

You should also check if your opponent would like to have a presentation because some opponents choose to skip this part if they are joining the defense via Zoom. However, if your opponent wants to give an overview of the field, it may be reasonable to send the presentation to you in advance. It helps to avoid the potential technical issues with sharing different screens and may give a great feeling of teamwork while you will carefully listen to your opponent and change the slides. Moreover, you and your supervisor should remember to send in advance the notification about digital participation in the defense to the dissertation committee.

Keep in mind that according to the KI rules after the public defense the examination board will discuss your work in private before making the official announcement. Your supervisor should send a link to a new Zoom meeting to the board members who will not be present at the defense in person. This will ensure that their discussion of your performance will stay secret until the official announcement. 

In general, I think that all future presentations should be both physical and online, as it turned out to be very efficient, especially if your board members and opponent come from different cities and countries. Moreover, the current crisis turned a thesis defense into a truly public event. During my presentation, there were approximately 25 people in the audience, and 25 people joined via Zoom. It was an incredible experience for my parents and friends in Ukraine who obviously have never seen the Swedish defense before and were excited to see my excellent performance.   

To conclude, my biggest advice to future graduates is to enjoy the process. You already did an amazing job driving the projects, working tirelessly, and researching your topic. Possibly, you may miss the opportunity to shake hands with your opponent after a fruitful discussion or to throw a dissertation party. Also, your colleagues may miss a chance to hear about the research of your opponent as the dissertations were usually combined with lectures of invited professors. Everything is true, but we need to adjust to the new reality and try to make lemonade from the lemons given to us. Trust me as I did it. Now it is your turn. Good luck!

Pictures: The cover photo is a cover picture of my thesis book, drawn by me. The depletion of the protein of my interest, Plk1, leads to monopolar spindle formation and apoptosis of a cancer cell. That is exactly what I decided to show. 


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